Plastic Meaning: How changes in language over time affect Bible translations

How will your favorite Bible version read in 50 years? 100 years? 400? Language changes over time, a fact that has long frustrated Bible translators and spawned many new Bible translations.

For a vivid example of this, we need look no further than the popular King James Version, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. The Grateful to the Dead blog has assembled a list of words from the KJV that have very different meanings today than they did when the KJV was first published. For example (KJV words are in bold, followed by the modern equivalent):

amazement terror, 1 Pet 3:6. A much stronger and more negative meaning. We’ve sort of domesticated this word, haven’t we?

bowels (1) heart(s) (metaphorically, as the seat of emotion), Gen 43:30; 1 Kgs 3:26; Ps 109:18; Isa 16:11; 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 1:20; 2:11; Phlm 7, 12, 20. (2) compassion, Isa 63:15; Phil 1:8; 2:1; Col 3:12. (3) affections, 2 Cor 6:12. (4) anguish, Jer 4:19. (5) innermost self, Song 5:4. A difficult image for us to appreciate today; seems to derive from an ancient Hebrew understanding of the “guts” as the seat of compassionate emotion. The closest we have now is in phrases like “go with your gut” and “gut check,” which refers more to intuition than love.

by and by immediately, Matt 13:21; Mark 6:25; Luke 17:7; 21:9. Today, “by and by” seems to have the opposite meaning—something that will happen eventually.

careful anxious, Luke 10:41; Phil 4:6. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be careful for nothing” means, “don’t let anything make you full of care,” that is, “make you anxious.”

conversation (1) way of life, 2 Cor 1:12; Gal 1:13; Eph 2:3; 4:22; Phil 1:27; 1 Tim 4:12; Heb 13:5, 7; Jas 3:13; 1 Pet 1:8; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16; 2 Pet 2:7; 3:11. (2) life, 1 Pet 1:15. (3) in the way, Ps 37:14; 50:23. (4) citizenship, Phil 3:20. This is another 17th-century word whose modern meaning has taken, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, a significant “left turn at Albuquerque.”

It can be confusing to come across a word that has simply fallen out of use (like “flagon,” Song 2:5); but it can create theological uncertainty when we encounter words whose meanings have changed drastically over time (like “by and by,” Mark 6:25). This doesn’t mean that the KJV is wrong or inferior; but just as we should be mindful of the culture in which the Bible was originally written, we should be mindful of the culture in which a Bible translation was completed.

Every translation will experience this phenomenon over time; give the original NIV 400 years and we’ll have a list just as long. While translators do their best to mitigate this problem, it’s largely out of their hands. Try as they might, no one can predict how language will shift, and this is doubly true today given how rapidly the internet disseminates linguistic fads and memes.

All one needs to do is look at the overuse (and neutering) of the word “awesome” over the past few decades to see how quickly our language changes. “Awesome” has been used in my presence to describe everything from a sandwich to football. Somehow calling God awesome these days doesn’t carry the weight that it once did.

Credit goes to our colleague Rich Tatum for posting the link to Grateful to the Dead on his twitter feed.

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Posted by Chris

Filed under Bible Study